Dear Fellow Iconographers:
Wherever I go, giving talks or workshops about Icons, there is always one question people ask: “Why do you say Icon writing and not Icon painting”? Most of you who have had class with me know the answer in a general way, but because it highlights some important issues, I want to clarify even more what we mean by “write” instead of “paint”.
Discerning and describing the difference between a religious painting and an Icon is the heart of the matter. When you think of beautiful religious paintings, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or Raphael’s Madonnas, or Da Vinci’s Madonna of the rocks, or countless other beautiful religious paintings- what are the differences between them and an Icon? And why does it matter?
Icons are images that contain Spiritual power and grace. They do this by the combination of prayers, Traditions of the Church, sacred geometric composition, Scriptural narratives and the intention of the Iconographer to convey the Saints in the light of the Holy Spirit operating within them.
Icons are meant to be Scripture in visual form. In the readings at Church this past Sunday, about the Transfiguration in 2Peter 1: 16-21, just after God’s audible voice tells us “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, Peter says ” And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morningstar rises in your hearts. First of all, no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
So, in that Scriptural passage is a clarification of the difference between an Icon and a religious painting – the religious painting has more of the artist’s personal interpretation and is less strictly following the Word of God. Michelangelo’s painting style is called “mannerism” and is emotive and expressive of more than just the Scriptural scenes depicted. This development from the Renaissance onward, has contributed to the marginalization of God’s Sovereignty in the contemporary world and culture. THAT is why we make emphasis on “writing” , rather than “painting”so that we can bring forward, through the Icon, a more God-centric perspective, from an earlier time and attempt to become disentangled from the Humanism that we have unconsciously absorbed from our culture.
There is a great deal more to say and document about this important shift perspective, and as always, I point the reader to Egon Sendler’s excellent book “The Icon, Image of the Invisible. Elements of Theology, Aesthetics, and Technique” for a more thorough treatment of the visual, and theological principles involved in Icon “writing”.
Perhaps in the next blog we can look at the issue of Pictorial space in an Icon- other key difference between religious paintings and Icons.
Just wanted to mention some interesting Icon Links to you all: Icons and Their Interpretation is a blog I recommend if you are interested in the meanings behind the old Icons. It is a site dedicated to the study of Greek, Russian, and Baltic Icons. Here is a link to their recent post about the Icon “Let All That Has Breath Praise the Lord”. It is a lovely Icon and really shows the Iconographic language and method of illustrating Scripture.
Also, another useful link is that for the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. They have a variety of changing programs and exhibitions and I’m sure some will be of interest.
Last thing to mention for this blog is three Lenten Icon writing workshops I am offering before Easter – you are invited to any of these:
- Friday evening, March 10 and all day Saturday, March 11 Introduction to Icon Writing workshop Church of the Redeemer, Sarasaota, Florida
- March 21-24, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York Advanced Icon Writing – but beginners are also welcome. Contact Brother Joseph at the Guesthouse 845-384-6660 ext. 3004, or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Morningstar Renewal Center, Miami Florida, April 12-15 Introduction to icon Writing and Stations of the Cross on Friday the 15th.
May God continue to bless the work of your hands, and keep you in His ways,
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4 thoughts on “Why Icon Writing and not Painting?”
Who /when began this phrasing and distinction using the word writing ?
Hello Ardis: I can only speak from my own experience with learning from Master Orthodox Iconographers that “writing” was the only correct term we were taught to use. However, I believe that in recent years, with the advent of more teachers and a wider perspective of the process of icon painting, the terms can be used inter-changeably.
This distinction is only found among English-speakers, mainly American ones. It’s at best a linguistic error, at worst a pretentious affectation. In both Greek and Slavonic, the words graphe and pisat’ refer to both the written word, and to pictorial depictions sacred and secular, without controversy or confusion. English also preserves this duality of meaning.”Graphic” refers to something described in great detail, in the way a picture does. There is also the term “graphic novel”, a story told through pictures as well as words, and, of course, “photography”, where light is used to produce an image on paper or other tangible medium.
There is nothing at all irreverent or derogatory in saying “icons are painted”. It is wrong for those who claim to be master iconographers to continue to perpetuate the error of “icon writing”.
I agree, that the term “painting” is just as relevant as “writing” in talking about making icons. AS you pointed out, in the Greek, the meaning is both “written and “painted”. However, your barb about perpetuating the error of “icon writing” is both unnecessary, and against the mission statement and rules of this organization. Assuming you are familiar with Christian principles, I must remind you that participation in this group is limited to people who can be supportive and kind. any further comments must adhere to these principles.